Real Conservatives should speak out

Published by The i paper (14th December, 2020)

So this is how it ends. After 47 years as a leading member of the trading alliance that has delivered unprecedented peace and prosperity to our continent, the British Government makes threats of military force against our neighbours. Even before we have completed negotiations on exit from the European Union, let alone left a partnership shaped so much by our country, Boris Johnson’s team is briefing that he is preparing to despatch armed naval gunboats to defend our waters from Dutch, French and German fishing fleets.

What a sad moment for our nation. And what a tragic symbol of the depths to which this disastrous Prime Minister has sunk that he is issuing these bellicose threats. He thinks he is being Churchillian but comes across as a poundstore Palmerston. We could, incidentally, bump up against nine neighbours in any new cod war if trying to impose a 200-mile exclusion zone. Yet the significance was all the stronger for the silence of Johnson’s party.  I heard just one lonely voice of criticism from Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, who rightly spoke out against “irresponsible” damage being inflicted on Britain’s battered global reputation.

Can anyone now doubt that the Conservative Party has turned into a hardline cadre of English nationalists, so ruthlessly focused on their mythical vision of sovereignty that they are blinded to the corrosive damage inflicted on their country? Vladimir Putin must be delighted to see a key Nato nation threaten to unleash armed forces on other members of this crucial alliance. Our despotic enemies in a turbulent world can take comfort that while Donald Trump may be leaving the White House, his soulmate Johnson remains in Downing Street to carry on winkling open divisions in the West.

Yet those tongue-tied quislings in the Tory Party would do well to ask themselves a question: what does their party stands for now beyond this tinpot nationalism? It is one year since they won a landslide election on the basis that Jeremy Corbyn was incompetent, fiscally incontinent and could not be trusted to defend British interests. Yet the past 12 months have proved Johnson to be no different. 

The Brexit debacle shows he is cavalier with the country’s well-being. His ineptitude was exposed with fatal consequences in the pandemic, which also saw the magic money tree shaken with such vigour and vast sums handed to corporate pals. Now there are reports of another £10bn chucked at car makers and chemical manufacturers hurt by Brexit. It is, of course, easy to be generous with other people’s money.

The genius of the Conservative Party over three centuries has been its fixation on power and fluidity in shifting direction to find new voters, seen again at the last election. Yet while its political stance was flexible, its instincts stayed consistent.  The clue is in the name: it shows their desire for stability, their scepticism about utopian schemes, their support for crown, flag and union in league – since the days of Robert Peel and Benjamin Disraeli – with mercantile interests.  They backed entry to the EU to ensure food security and stability, then under their modern heroine Margaret Thatcher led its makeover to assist commerce with the single market.

Now this party is under the control of a small band of fanatical English nationalists who have kicked out leading moderates, cowed internal dissenters, lied endlessly to the electorate and embarked on the hardest form of Brexit. They do not care about the disruption, the damage to jobs, let alone the dire impact on our global standing. They have left businesses and farmers dangling in the wind with just days to go until end of the transition period.  Even the union that binds our kingdom may be sacrificed as they drive the Scots away and Irish together. Yet they blame everyone but themselves for their predictable failure to persuade the EU to let us have all the benefits of membership while obtaining freedom to go our own way.

As the handful of high-profile business leaders who backed Brexit slink off to tax havens while taking their factories and firms abroad, a few proper Tories – largely exiled from their party – still try to stand up for its traditional values.  Michael Heseltine, a successful entrepreneur before becoming a politician, points out rightly that empty talk of taking back control does not create jobs. ‘This government will be – and should be – helps responsible for quite simply the worst peacetime decision of modern times,’ he wrote in The Observer, before adding that he knew members of the Cabinet who share his views. “I cannot understand their silence.”

Like the former deputy prime minister, I know many people in the party staying silent despite the deepest of qualms. Their actions in defending a leader whom they know to be a knave while he harms his nation are no different to all those shameful Republicans publicly supporting a US President as he undermines democracy. Indeed, the damage from hard Brexit will be worse for Britain than four years of Donald Trump for the United States.

Yet the Tory party has descended into a dark place, defiling itself on an almost daily basis after handing control to extreme English nationalists once kept firmly on the fringe. Johnson is both the architect of chaos and hostage of the hard right. These people are hurtling forward in revolutionary fervour towards a destination they cannot share beyond vague clichés about sovereignty. They are aided by an army of shamefaced appeasers in the Cabinet and beyond who back a Brexit they know is destructive to stay loyal to a leader they despise.

There is a famous quote attributed to Edmund Burke, the philosopher of conservatism, that “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” Anyone claiming to be a Conservative might reflect on these words as Johnson threatens to unleash gunboats on our closest friends.

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